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The Gay Joke that Brought Hollywood to Its Knees

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | November 1, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | November 1, 2010 |

A few weeks ago, Universal released a trailer for The Dilemma, which stars Kevin James, Vince Vaughn, Winona Ryder, and Jennifer Connelly. At some point in the trailer, Vince Vaughn’s character suggested that the electric car that Kevin James drove was “gay.” The trailer played for a few days and no one thought much about it. But then, Anderson Cooper (who I dig the hell out of) got upset; GLAAD got involved; and a couple of days later, that joke was removed from the trailers, and now benign (and even lame) gay jokes are suddenly controversial.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? I’ll go with: I don’t know. I have mixed feelings on the “that’s so gay” joke. It seems to be a matter of context. I grew up with a gay dad, and around lots of gay guys, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a gay person who didn’t make his fair share of “that’s so gay,” jokes, or variations thereof. Gay friendly folks, meanwhile, also seem to have carte blanche when it comes to “That’s so gay,” jokes because, well, they aren’t malicious and are often unusually good way to describe something, like — say — a leather vest. In fact, “that’s so gay,” more often than not, is used to describe something that many gay and gay friendly people find positive. Electric cars, for instance. In my insular little world, using “that’s so gay” to describe an electric car reflects more on the speaker than it does the car. Electric cars are great; people who call them gay have sexual identity inadequacy issues and don’t really give a shit about the environment.

What I’m saying is, if you’re comfortable with your sexual identity, if you really have worked yourself up to the 21st century and are comfortable with homosexuality, maybe “that’s so gay” is no more offensive than “that’s so straight,” or “goddamn breeders.” It describes something that falls on either side of some ridiculous archaic notions of masculinity. But then again, The Dilemma is a broad comedy and appeals to many people that fall outside of my insular little world, and maybe in some pockets of the country, where these archaic notions of masculinity still thrive, “that’s so gay,” can actually be hurtful and alienating, even if mainstream liberal America has adopted “that’s so gay” as a non-malicious way to describe something that gay people would be more inclined to do, wear, own, say. So, maybe it’s not appropriate for a trailer going all in multiplexes around the nation. Though, it’s my guess that people defending gay rights more than actual gay people that would get upset about it.

Anyway, that brings me to Ron Howard, who defended the gay joke in the trailer and insisted it would stay in the movie. He told the L.A Times:

Did you think it wasn’t offensive? I don’t strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate. Comedy or drama, I’m always trying to make choices that stir the audience in all kinds of ways. This Ronny Valentine character can be offensive and inappropriate at times and those traits are fundamental to his personality and the way our story works.

Will comedy be neutered if everyone gets to complain about every potentially offensive joke in every comedy that’s made? Anybody can complain about anything in our country. It’s what I love about this place. I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought.

Besides being a slightly incoherent defense of inappropriate comedy, Howard’s statement inadvertently seems to give more legitimacy to a bad joke, suggesting that it has the power to provoke, stir audiences, or offend. We’re not talking about Lenny Bruce here, folks. This was a gay joke about an electric car. Ron Howard is not provoking thought or pushing envelopes; the joke is mocking certain men that drive electric cars who don’t hold on to antiquated notions of masculinity. Sure, it’s meant to be insulting; but in my world, it just makes the speaker sound like a dumb ass instead of the other way around.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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